The Fiat 500 and Shelby GT500 Face Off in This Unlikely Clash of the Titans

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the December 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

 

The ancient Hebrew story of David versus Goliath is a parable used to illustrate how the little guy—if cunning and agile—can triumph over the big oppressor. Of course, the modern version of this Biblical classic involves a whole lot less beheading, vengeance and wrath, but it’s still an effective teaching tool. 

Maybe it’s because we’re always rooting for the little guys to triumph over tyranny—to the point where we really can’t consider them the little guys anymore—but many in the sports car community automatically root for the small, nimble car over the one that’s big and powerful. 

We just can’t help ourselves: We often pick the lithe gymnast over the brutish professional football player. You’re simply not going to expect the defensive lineman to do a whole lot of running around to get his job done. He’s on the field merely to be large and in charge, and that doesn’t make for a fun day of competition. 

Think about it: Many of our readers like to road race and autocross, both of which have more in common with gymnastics than football. It’s going to take a car with low weight and quick reflexes to perform well when the chicanes and pylon gates are flashing by at a rapid clip. We’re typically not muscle car freaks, but maybe it’s time to stop being so prejudiced. After all, times have changed and muscle cars have improved dramatically in the 45-plus years they’ve been pounding the ground. Even modern football teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers are teaching their defensive line to be more agile and quick on their feet, not just big and mean. The result? A package with more power and speed on the field than the competition—and lots of points on the scoreboard.

Despite our penchant for the small and sporty, the late-model Mustang is our favorite brute on the line of scrimmage. It packs a mean punch with its V8 engine and has a big enough wheel-and-tire package under its fenders to put the power down where it’s needed. 

We’d be willing to bet that the latest speedy Mustang has the handling chops to keep up with the latest hot hatch with ease—and not just on a fast road course, but on a tight autocross course as well. We figured we’d pit that big, lumbering Mustang against the hottest of modern hot hatches, the Fiat Abarth 500, to see how much faster that little gymnast really is in the corners. 

We’ll admit, this isn’t going to be a fair fight. The Mustang will be toast after that first apex, right?

In This Corner: Goliath

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

Our first encounters with the then-new 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302 left us impressed, and it quickly became one of our favorite new cars on the lot. It offers a lot of power with a competent chassis. The 5.0-liter engine makes 444 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. of torque—more than enough to intimidate and arouse—while its track-tuned suspension has the chops to really make it a fun steed to horse around with on an autocross course or race track. 

For 2013, Ford engineers took the ball a little farther down the field with the addition of a new Shelby version to the Mustang lineup. The Shelby GT500 has a 662-horsepower, 5.8-liter supercharged engine—just let that fact sink in for a minute. More fireworks: Ford claims that it can top 200 mph right off the showroom floor. That’s supercar territory for about the same price as a loaded SUV.

The GT500 has a rugged Tremec six-speed transmission and an optional Torsen differential to make sure all its power gets to the ground. Our test car was fitted with the SVT Track Package, a $2995 option that adds a trio of oil coolers for the engine, transmission and differential. 

The test car was equipped with the $1595 Recaro seats and the $3495 SVT Performance Package that adds Bilstein shock absorbers with two available damping modes, plus that available Torsen differential. The SVT Performance Package adds the forged aluminum 19- and 20-inch wheels, uprated rear springs, a new instrument cluster and a slick, white billiard-ball of a shift knob.

Yeah, it’s a pro baller, but can it handle? To make it work, Ford spec’d some monster OE shoes for this beast: The front tires are 265/40ZR19 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 rubber, while the rears are the same sticky tires in an even larger 285/35ZR20 size. 

In the Other Corner: David

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The Fiat 500 hit our shores in 2011, and it took another year for enthusiasts to finally be able to buy the version they really wanted—the turbocharged Abarth. The latest giant-killer has arrived. 

The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth has a 1.4-liter engine that’s been fortified with a turbocharger and two small intercoolers. The little engine—and little it is, with 40 percent less displacement than the Shelby’s 2.3-liter supercharger—pulls strongly all the way to its 6500 rpm redline. With around 2500 pounds to pull around, it’s quite the little pocket rocket. 

Despite the performance-tuned, turbocharged engine, drivers may be surprised by the five-speed manual transmission. Just a five-speed? Crash-structure strengthening in the American version preempted Fiat’s Euro-spec six-speed box. 

While enthusiasts typically like the “one better” nature of a six-speed, we found no need for the extra cog. The five speeds are well spaced and we actually prefer this setup for most track work. 

The Abarth comes standard with Koni’s near-magical FSD shock absorbers. The dampers have shaft-speed selective valving that yields great handling without the harshness of a typical sport-tuned shock absorber. 

Other suspension improvements include lower and stiffer springs, and the addition of a small rear anti-roll bar. Fiat makes mention of the Abarth’s Brembo brakes; to our eyes, however, these appeared to be pretty standard OE-level Brembos powder-coated with a particularly flashy shade of red. 

Our test car was fitted with the optional forged alloy 17x7-inch rims, which were wrapped in a 205/40R17 version of Pirelli’s P-Zero Nero. These solid performance tires help the Abarth’s feisty, chuckable nature with a progressive breakaway and great steering response. 

Power

Sometimes the big guys are more bravado than bravery. Before hitting the track, we double-checked the factory-claimed horsepower and torque ratings for each car with a chassis dynamometer. Power and torque are more than a single discrete number in a spec box, and we wanted to see exactly how the cars, both big and small, delivered their power through the rpm range. 

The Shelby GT500’s supercharged engine is Ford-rated to make 662 horsepower at 6500 rpm. That’s backed up by 631 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. The Abarth’s power isn’t so prodigious, with a claimed rating of just 160 horsepower at 5500 rpm. The Abarth’s tiny 1.4-liter turbocharged engine does manage to squeak out 170 lb.-ft. of torque thanks to its 18 psi of peak boost. 

To verify these numbers, we drove both cars to the Superchips dynamometer facility in Sanford, Florida. We strapped down the Shelby GT500 to the Dynojet chassis dynamometer first. Our initial pull on the dyno in fifth gear saw the rollers spin at a stratospheric 200 mph, and as a result, we hit the machinery’s built-in speed limiter. Our second pull in fourth gear saw an honest 560 horsepower and 567 lb.-ft. of torque at the rear wheels. That’s some serious, serious grunt. 

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

The Abarth 500, on the other hand, put down 120 horsepower and 153 lb.-ft. of torque at the wheels. These figures for both cars are well within the range of acceptable driveline losses. 

Just to put things in perspective: The Shelby weighs only about 50 percent more but makes four times as much power. Perhaps that brawn thing has some merit?

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Weigh-In

As we did with the horsepower numbers, we also wanted to verify the curb weights. We weighed each car on our Longacre corner-weighting scales. 

According to their respective spec sheets from the factory, the Abarth should weigh around 2500 pounds, while the Mustang should tip the scales at around 3800 pounds. Oddly enough, those were the exact—and we mean exact—numbers we got on our cars with each having just a quarter-tank of gas. By the way, we call that load of fuel our “autocross fuel level.” 

It’s hard not to notice that the Mustang weighs more than 1.5 Fiats. This track test should be interesting. 

Track Time!

We took the two 500s to Florida International Rally & Motorsports Park in Keystone Heights, Florida. The facility has multiple configurations to make vehicle testing a snap. We can do anything from tight autocross course testing to high-speed track work with no fuss.

We started out with some straight acceleration runs—an obvious easy A for the footballer of the class. The Shelby powered its way to a low-4-second zero-to-60 time that was hampered by wheelspin through most of the launch. 

Just think about that time for a minute. That’s a supercar-beating run—from something available through virtually any Ford dealership.

The Abarth—with no turns to showcase—scampered to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds. While that seems slow in comparison, go back a couple of years and that would have been a class-leading sprint. Oh, how the goalposts have moved.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

Next up was the fastest of the facility’s road course configurations, the nine-turn, 1.5-mile circuit known as the Bradford Loop. Going in, we figured the circuit would play to the Shelby’s strengths. Guess what? It did. 

The track’s long straight allowed the Shelby to exceed 130 mph before hitting the brakes for the sweeping carousel turn. This long straight would certainly give the Shelby an edge in high-end speed.

The Shelby indeed felt large and powerful, making short work of the track’s long straights. We had some problems getting the car slowed down enough to negotiate some of the tighter turns, however. The combination of massive amounts of power and the resulting top speed meant we were really taxing the brakes as we pounded out multiple laps. 

Our fastest lap in the Shelby was 1:22.5 but we could not back that up for multiple laps—invariably, the brakes would be cooked by the time we were headed into the next flying lap. We could string together several mid-1:23-second laps if we gave the car just a little more room for the brakes to work. We recommend to anyone wanting to take a Shelby GT500—or even the regular Mustang GT—to the track to first replace the brake pads with ones that are more capable of handling high-heat conditions. 

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The Abarth, on the other hand, was an easy car to drive quickly. We readily found our rhythm through the transitions and sweeping turns. The brakes felt firm and solid for our 10-lap session. They were easily capable of slowing down the turbocharged 500 from its terminal velocity. Unlike the Shelby, the Abarth seemed better prepared for this severe beating in totally stock form. 

The Abarth 500’s lap times were all clustered within just a few tenths of a second of each other, as we found the car easy to drive at the limit lap after lap. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a lightweight, front-wheel-drive car is easy to drive, but this one definitely took to the track well. 

“Easy to drive” doesn’t always correlate with fast lap times, as the Abarth was not capable of keeping up with the Shelby—in fact, its fast lap was some 11 seconds slower than the ground-pounding brute’s best effort. The long straight was probably the reason for this deficit, as the Fiat struggled to break the 100 mph mark. Our fast lap time in the Abarth was 1:33.5.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

Add Some Tricky Corners …

The FIRM’s road course can also be configured as a series of 90-degree turns called The Shoebox. This change would cut out that long straight—the Shelby’s forte, obviously—and add a boatload of patience and nimbleness to the equation. 

True to form, the Abarth took to the 90-degree turns and slow-speed maintenance sections with ease, using the whole of the car’s long second gear on the chutes that connected the tight corners. Adding some corners to the track obviously added to the lap times, with the Abarth’s fast lap taking 1:48.8. Here’s the kicker: Not only was 1:48.8 the Abarth’s fast time, but it was also the average, as we clicked off three laps that were on exactly the same tenth. 

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The Shelby did feel a little more out of place in this section of the track, delivering prodigious wheelspin if we were too aggressive with the throttle. The flip side was that, by getting rid of that fast straight, we also got rid of the hard braking zone that was overtaxing the Ford’s brake pads. The Shelby could also use all of its locomotive-like torque to rocket from corner to corner with astounding speed. The times were a consistent 1:37.2, some 11.6 seconds faster than the Abarth's. So much for adding a chicane to slow down the Shelby.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

Autocross: The Great Equalizer, Right?

Maybe we needed to rethink this comparison. Clearly a road course is just too open and fast to favor the sports car over the muscle machine. 

Fortunately, The FIRM’s grounds also have a half-mile kart track that features a nice mix of tight 180s, a few high-speed transitions, some switchbacks and a few faster sweepers. With a total of 11 turns in that half-mile, even a MINI Cooper feels like a houseboat. Finally, we figured, the perfect place to show how quick footwork can outpace raw muscle. 

The Abarth was a treat on those tight little switchbacks. Its front wheels grappled for traction as we used the meat of its second-gear powerband on the short kart track, just popping the rev limiter near 60 mph on one straight. The Fiat’s short wheelbase made the 180-degree turns feel like carnival carousels as we flicked the Italian hottie from corner to corner. We giggled across the finish line, proud of the 49.1-second elapsed time. That’s about where our Ford Fiesta project stacks up with its stickier Toyo R1R tires. 

We’ve just about exhausted our horse metaphors with the Mustang, so we’ll switch to another trite one for its performance on the autocross course: a bull in a China shop. It’s a lot of work to muscle the Ford through the corners, and it really requires a deft right foot to give the car just enough throttle without burning the fat Goodyear tires off the Shelby’s rims. 

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the Shelby turned a series of 46-second runs, with the fast one of 46.2 being nearly 3 seconds ahead of the little Fiat. We used only the GT500’s very tall first gear, which allows the car to travel well past 60 mph before the rev limiter kicks in. While it was harder to control, the first gear strategy really paid off and allowed the Mustang to haul butt from feature to feature on this tight, autocross-like track. 

Horses for Courses

While some say that stereotypes exist for a reason, we really need to get away from thinking that muscle cars can’t handle as well as our favorite small cars. The Shelby GT500 is probably the biggest and baddest muscle car around these days, and it is challenging to drive fast. 

But given a firm hand and a disciplined right foot, you can hustle it through even the tightest of autocross courses—or blast around the fastest road course with equal aplomb. Let’s hear it for the engineers behind the scenes who made this transformation possible: They have ushered in a new era of performance for the enthusiast. 

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

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Comments
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mr2s2000elise
mr2s2000elise SuperDork
9/18/20 8:56 a.m.

Great article 

 

seems the mustang whoopedthe fiat at every test you threw at it 

 

Javelin (Forum Supporter)
Javelin (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/18/20 9:29 a.m.

Per's back?!?

P3PPY
P3PPY HalfDork
9/18/20 10:08 a.m.

Very neat article, takes the wind out of the sails of "yeah but my car can handle."

Might I clarify the first sentence, however. A reading of the text of David v. Goliath -- as we are *presented* with it  (as opposed to how we might with atheistic goggles interpret the unlikely event) -- reveals that the ACTUAL illustration is that YHWH ("God") is David's protector, despite the odds, NOT that being cunning and nimble is David's rescuer.

Per
Per New Reader
9/18/20 10:11 a.m.

No, but man, I can still smell those GT500 brakes.  Holy crap were they toast after a few laps.  

solfly
solfly Dork
9/18/20 10:50 a.m.
cmathes
cmathes
9/18/20 3:28 p.m.

The Fiat HP/Torque plot looks off, the HP and Torque curves should cross at 5,252.

There was a Fiat 500 at one the 25 Hours of Thuderhill endurance race around 10 years ago.  With sticky tires, it fell over on the track by itself, just landed on it's side after going through a fast corner.  If you want a small, fun car, Miata Is Always The Answer.

 

Lightfoot
Lightfoot
9/21/20 10:17 a.m.

My Abarth is a hoot in the dirt...

Jerry
Jerry UberDork
9/21/20 1:13 p.m.

(Looking at his shoes, kicking a small rock across the lot) "I still like my Abarth".

DirtyBird222
DirtyBird222 UberDork
9/21/20 1:20 p.m.
Javelin (Forum Supporter) said:

Per's back?!?

My thoughts too

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
9/21/20 1:23 p.m.

In reply to Jerry :

Don't worry, I'm with you on this one. I think if I was lead into a room and told to pick one, I'd probably go for the Abarth.

That may be because I was raised on smaller Japanese imports, but still, Abarth all the way.

P3PPY
P3PPY HalfDork
9/21/20 1:34 p.m.

In reply to Lightfoot :

that is a FANTASTIC picture!

Vigo (Forum Supporter)
Vigo (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/21/20 2:27 p.m.

The Abarth is one of several cars i had the perhaps bad fortune of running against in a basically stock SOHC neon and losing most of my interest in after realizing it wasn't really better than that in anything but perhaps personality and cachet. Not that i don't value personality!!

On the other hand, GT500s stand well apart from pretty much everything that ISNT a 'very fast musclecar' and that hasn't changed with the march of time, even for the oldest 2007 models.  I don't care particularly much about most Mustangs but all the modern GT500s are awesome cars to me. 

I would certainly be interested in an Abarth-itated 500e, as long as i didn't have to pay that much for it. 

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